Things to watch for (or be aware of) on a river cruise in Europe:
River cruise holiday disappointments can mostly be avoided with a bit of research and preparation when planning your river cruise holiday in Europe. Sometimes people who’ve been on ocean cruises assume that a European river cruise is pretty much the same thing and then are disappointed when they find that the cabins are smaller, or that there’s no choice of restaurants, or that the evening entertainment is lacking.
The Rise and Rise of River Cruising
With the rapid growth of the river cruising industry, many river cruise operators have made major expansions to their fleet. The new river boats plying the rivers of Europe are the latest and greatest in riverboat designs and there’s keen competition amongst these main players to provide luxury river cruises for their passengers. Companies that fall in this category include the likes of Viking, Uniworld, Scenic Tours, Avalon, Tauck and AmaWaterways. In addition to these mainstream river cruise companies, there are tour aggregators who offer similar cruise itineraries, but using older and smaller boats.
There is a large variation in what’s being offered, so if you’re planning a European river cruise, below is a list of some of the things to be aware of before you book your river cruising holiday.
Staterooms:Prices quoted are always for the cheapest option. This usually means the lowest deck which has smaller windows just above water level that cannot be opened. On an Avalon cruise the Captain told people not to be alarmed if the water level sometimes came partially over the window as this was simply when the ship’s ballast tanks were filled to make it ride lower to pass under low bridges! We don’t recommend these staterooms (cabins) as you can only see out if you’re standing.
The big competition amongst river cruise operators is in the staterooms – who can provide the largest rooms and the biggest views. In the early days of river cruising, rooms with French balconies were the best you could get. Then there was a rush to build ships with outside balconies a few years ago, but now some are moving to a combination of half outside balcony and half conservatory-style balcony or half outside balcony and half French balcony.
If budget is not an issue, rooms with outside balconies would be our first preference, or a combination of half outside balcony and half French balcony with full height opening windows, preferably on the top deck as you get a better view. The sun-deck and main ship facilities are usually closer. Note that the new Scenic Tours “Space-ships” and Viking “Longships”, Uniworld “Super-Ships” have outside balconies and AMA Waterways have half outside balcony and half French balcony in order to conserve room size.
Note: If you’ve previously been on ocean cruises, be aware that the staterooms on riverboats are smaller, especially on the older river boats, as the boats themselves are much smaller than ocean liners.
Many older river boats do not have passenger lifts between decks, but those that have been refurbished in recent years have had lifts installed. The trend is towards having lifts in all new riverboats. If a boat does not have a lift, access between decks is usually by staircases, not big ones but if you have problems with stairs you will want to be on the same deck as the dining room and bar, for example, to minimize usage of the staircases. Still, on the cruises I’ve been on I’ve noticed that most people tend to use the stairs, as the lifts are not very fast!
Excursions:Each day your boat will call into one or two ports where you will be taken on a walking tour of the town/s. Good walking shoes are essential, and these cruises definitely require you to be able to enjoy a walk if you’re going to get the most out of them. There are cobblestones and uneven surfaces, and some of the towns and villages are on hillsides, meaning that there are a few ups and downs. These days, with more and more river boats plying the rivers of Europe, especially the Rhine and Danube, there is no guarantee that your river boat will be moored quite centrally as in the past! During our recent Vienna to Paris river cruise, we found ourselves moored further out at the industrial ports on a few occasions.
If you have mobility problems, it is a good idea to check with your tour director as to pace and difficulty of the walks each day and decide if you are able to participate – it’s perfectly okay if you just want to stay on board and some people do. Be aware that the boats are usually booked to arrive at the various locks at specific times and your tour director does not have the ability to allow time extensions when in towns.
Several companies are now offering the chance to use bicycles carried on board if you feel athletic!
Check carefully if the cruise that choose includes transfers from the airport to where the boat is moored. When transfers are not mentioned, it could mean that you will need to make your own way into town. Make sure you have the full address of the port terminal for your taxi driver.
If you go on a multi-lingual tour, one that includes more Europeans, you will probably find a more accepting attitude to smoking in public areas, but the anti-smoking movement has made some progress in Europe with smoking being allowed only in designated areas. Russian and Chinese cruises are particularly known for being less strict on non-smoking areas.
The good news is that cruises aimed at the American and Australian market usually ban all smoking anywhere inside the boat, allowing it only in a dedicated smoking area outside.
English speakers will find it preferable to look for a tour that’s English-speaking only. Daily announcements are made over the intercom and there would be nothing more non-relaxing than to have your quiet time interupted by an announcement that’s repeated in several languages. And of course, commentaries on excursions can become a little wearing, and necessarily less comprehensive. On our recent Uniworld cruise, we were relieved that they did not make intercom announcements at all. Instead, all communication on activities were provided in the daily port talk.
The advertising blurb will give you an indication of the type of cuisine to expect. On our cruise, as on many, there was promise of European fine dining and the ‘true flavours of Europe’. Those on our last cruise who enjoyed rich, traditional European style cooking found that our German chef was able to cater to their palate. However, people who prefer a more modern, lighter cuisine, spicy food or who are vegetarians should be aware that they might not find the type of food that they are accustomed to. As for drinks, some operators are making their cruise packages all-inclusive, but there are others where you still have to pay for your drinks, except at meal time.
If you intend having a relaxing holiday and doing a lot of reading on deck, it would be advisable to bring your own supply of books. Although the brochure indicates that there is a library on board, you may find just a small bookcase with only a few books of interest.
For those who are light sleepers, it is a good idea to bring along some ear plugs. The cruise itself is very smooth and quiet, but when it goes through the locks at night, there could be some noise and vibration. On the Amsterdam to Budapest cruise, we went through some 68 locks – not all at night, of course! Tony, who can sleep through an earthquake, didn’t have problems, but Helen woke up whenever the boat rumbled. These days, the newer boats are much quieter and on our Uniworld Vienna to Paris cruise, we were surprised to wake up on a few mornings to find that we had already moored in port.
Watch out for the port charges, they are usually shown as extra to the basic cost.
Tipping:On a coach tour, you just have the tour director and driver. On a river boat you have a cruise director and the whole crew! As usual, there are varying opinions about this, but Avalon, for example, recommend €3 per passenger per day for the cruise director and €12 per passenger per day for the crew, with €1 per person for a local guide.
Now it’s true that a Cruise Director has more to do with say, 160 passengers as opposed to 40 or so on a coach, but then he has no hotel to supervise each night either. Based on their recommended rate for the cruise director, on a 15- day cruise with 160 pax that’s €7200, which is good money when added to the salary!
Frankly, having talked to a few tour directors over the years, I know that the tipping is very uneven. It’s obviously in the tour companies’ interest to encourage generous tipping as it reduces their costs and enables the tours to look cheaper, but I personally feel that exaggerating the suggested amounts can be counter-productive in the long run.
It’s interesting that this topic is undoubtedly the most discussed on tour company online bulletin boards, and has certainly caused animated conversations on tours I have been on! Contiki tours (for younger people) forbid tipping and pay their people a decent wage. If Contiki can do it, why then do the other major companies not have the foresight to adopt a similar approach – it could be a smart marketing move!
The good news is that some cruise operators like Scenic Tours, Uniworld and APT have moved to fares that are all-inclusive so you don’t have to worry about the tips at the end of the cruise. Hooray!
When comparing costs between cruise companies, it is important to compare like with like. Some operators, such as Uniworld, APT and Scenic Tours quote an all-inclusive price for their cruises, i.e. the airport transfers, sightseeing, drinks and all tips are included. Others quote prices that on the face of it looks cheaper, but by the time you add the tips and other costs, the prices could be substantially higher.
OUR ADVICE: Concentrate on the ship you want to travel on and the route you want to travel, (of course, there’s also price!). Things can and do go wrong on a river cruise, such as river flooding or low water levels and a good river cruise company will make sure that passengers do not lose out when there are problems.